By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
CHAPEL HILL, NC – There’s no place they’d rather be.
Zach Pop and Tristan Pompey each ventured off to the University of Kentucky at different times and in dissimilar situations, but the team’s two Canadian players have both made as strong an impression on their team as the Wildcats have on them as they head into their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively.
Experiencing extensive individual growth both on and off the field, going through a coaching regime change with their team, and truly developing into their current roles, both Canucks are excited about what the year has to offer, and what their program can do in the Southeastern Conference and beyond.
“This is a way better team than we had last year,” said Pompey, a 19-year-old outfielder from Mississauga, Ont. “The mindset of the team and how we approach the game is completely different. It’s more of a team than it was. With certain individuals last year, it was about those individuals. But this year, we’ll do well. I really do think we’re going to go to a regional and then maybe a super regional, and then hopefully Omaha. That’s the biggest goal. We’ve gotten a lot better and everyone has matured as a whole team.”
Added Pop: “We’re going to Omaha. It’s just the mindset in the locker room. It’s way more talked about. We have a great family atmosphere, we had a band of brothers, and in prior years there was kind of a class division. This year, it’s one big group of brothers and that’s awesome to see. It’s really helped us out on and off the field. We stick together.”
Though both players were recruited by members of the coaching staff who have moved onto different schools, the transition has been easy and has perhaps even helped the camaraderie of the squad as it works with the new regime to move forward.
“It’s been really smooth, honestly,” said Pop, a 20-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., and right-handed reliever for the Wildcats. “The coaches were honest with us from Day 1 and said, ‘Just be open-minded, have a really good approach with us, and a plan, and everything will work out,’ and it’s been exactly what they said. If you go into it with a bad mindset and you’re tentative and you don’t want to do things, or you’re skeptical and stuff like that, it’s not going to work out. But if you go in with an open mind and trust the process, everything works and it’s really smooth.”
Motivation is the key to success and learning
One example that both Pop and Pompey pointed to as a piece of evidence for the positive changes within the team was a distinct exercise their coaches asked them to engage in.
“Something cool that we’ve never done before was we had motivational speeches,” Pop said during the team’s opening weekend of games against UNC. “We each spoke in front of our teammates and we would come up with different things. It’s really neat to see the process and how the team has involved in itself.”
Added Pompey: “It was unique, because you obviously don’t usually talk in front of the whole team like that. It gives you a perspective on how everyone is thinking, and it also gives you a perspective of how hard the coaches’ jobs are because they have to do that every day, talk to us and motivate us every day. Thinking about that, it is pretty important. And it was a pretty special thing to do.”
So what did they offer to their teammates during their motivational turns at the front of the room?
“Oh, it’s locker room talk. We can’t talk about that,” Pop said, before elaborating about his preparation for the exercise. “But you’re really just speaking from the heart. You’re trying to inspire some of your brothers and your teammates to be just a little bit better, and try to think of something in a different way that they didn’t do before.”
Pompey especially enjoyed the locker room assignment, because he was able to pull from what had already inspired him and share with his teammates.
“I listen to motivational speeches on my own, so I just found one that really sticks to what I believe, and then I based it off of that and worked off of that,” he said. “I had two messages. One of my messages was that you have to truly believe that you are something if you want to become it. You have to really believe that you’re the best baseball player on the field if you want to actually be the best baseball player. It starts with your belief system first, and believing you can do it.
“Then the second one was that you have to think about the opportunity and not the obligation. Sometimes you wake up and you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to go to practice, I don’t want to do this.’ But at the end of the day, it’s an opportunity to get better. If you think about it as an opportunity, you’re always going to give your best effort, but if you think about it as an obligation you might not give it 100 per cent every time.”
The right decision is the one you make
While both players are excited at the team they’re a part of this season, the possibilities that lay ahead, and each player is happy with the decision he made to opt for college baseball over joining the professional ranks – Pop drafted in the 23rd round in 2014 by the Blue Jays, and Pompey selected in the 31st round of the 2015 draft by the Twins – the hurler knew from the beginning that Kentucky was the right place for him, while it took Pompey a little longer to come to the same conclusion.
“At first, I was a little shaky about the decision to go to college,” the young outfielder said. “But now that I’ve had the whole year, and this fall and spring, I’m really confident and I’m really happy that I chose this route, because I’ve gotten a lot better from high school. It’s starting to show. A lot of people have said that I’ve gotten way better. So this has been a good decision for me.”
Added Pop: “This is was 100% the right decision; I wouldn’t change a thing. In terms of maturity and getting to experience all these different cultures and different facilities – playing at LSU, South Carolina, and all these big stadiums where they have thousands of fans – it’s definitely an opportunity to grow, and something I wouldn’t have gotten in minor league baseball at the time.
“Also, it’s just a lot more friendly atmosphere. In pro ball, you’re out for yourself. Here, you’ve got a team, you’ve got a band of brothers who are with you every step of the way. If you’re struggling, they help you along. It’s one of the things that we stress here, is being a family.”
The result of years of evolutionary success
During the time they’ve had with their Wildcats family, Pompey and Pop have both evolved into almost entirely different people and players than they were when they first left the Toronto area to head to Kentucky.
“I make smarter decisions now,” Pompey said. “I’m not as young and reckless as I used to be. Over the summer I worked on my swing a lot, back home and hitting at the [Toronto] Mets facility, and then coming into the fall I felt really comfortable in the box. I just felt really good. Once I started hitting, and started making some contact, and I was taking it a lot more seriously. I used to chase a lot in the dirt but now I’m better at laying off and seeing the ball completely.”
Pop’s evaluation of Pompey echoes those sentiments.
“His approach has impressed me,” Pop said of his teammate. “He’s gotten way better with his approach, and he doesn’t – knock on wood – he doesn’t swing at the breaking balls down in the dirt, which has really changed. He forces you to put the fastball up in the zone, and he puts a good swing on it.”
Said Pompey: “It has been an overnight [maturity evolution], that’s what I think. I don’t know what happened, something just clicked I guess. Something clicked at the right time and now it’s paying off.”
The switch-hitter has also been impressed by his fellow countryman, seeing changes in Pop that have helped the righty become the prospect for the upcoming draft that he has.
“He throws really hard,” Pompey said. “And then he’s gotten a lot better with his command. He’s able to actually throw it where he wants to throw it, and he has a better mindset when he comes out to pitch. He looks like a totally different guy than he did last year. Now, he looks like he’s trying to kill someone out there, and he’s determined to strike every hitter out. I mean, he can’t get me out personally, but he can get a whole bunch of people out.”
Wait, what? Was that a little dig at a teammate within the complimentary comments that Pompey was issuing to Pop?
“We’ve faced each other six times, and I just own him,” Pompey said. “I think I’m 6-for-6 off him. I hit a bomb off of him. He said he respects me because he’s gotten everyone out but me.”
Pop said: “It’s a good battle.”
“Who wins those battles?” asked Pompey.
“So far this year, Pompey has won more battles than I have,” Pop said. “I’m just trying to build up his confidence, you know? If you can get a hit off of me, you can get a hit off of anyone. I would have gotten him out once though. He grounded into a double-play ball, but the first baseman made an error, but that’s an out.”
Despite his intrasquad numbers against fellow Canadians, Pop knows that he has come leaps and bounds from where he was when he was playing for the Ontario Blue Jays and Canadian Junior National Team just a few years ago.
“It’s miles of difference,” he said. “I wouldn’t even recognize the person who I was, just in terms of the stuff that I’ve developed, the mindset – which coach [Jim] Belanger has helped me with – and just growing up, really. Being around the team and getting to experience all these different cultures and where people come from, I’ve been coming into my own person.”
Moving forward with a different mindset and a new arsenal
Pop’s current role at Kentucky has him sitting in the bullpen until the late innings of games, but the work that he has put in on adding pitches to his repertoire could be a sign of things to come later on, and would definitely lend a helping hand should he eventually make the transition to the rotation.
“I’ve added a changeup,” Pop said. “I never really used to have a changeup, and now I’ve got a pretty good changeup. Coach Belanger helped me out with that, and we long-tossed it for a while. I don’t use it too much. It’s there, but depending on what my role would be – at this level or the next level – whatever it is, that will determine what pitches I use. But I’ve got the sinker, the slider, which is coming along a lot better and it’s a really good pitch now, and then I’m starting to work on a cutter.”
Draft-eligible once again this June, Pop has tried to block out the noise as he heads into the process for a second time, wary of how it affected him three years ago.
“It’s always on the back burner, but I’m not really worried about it,” he said. “I’ve got to trust the cards and play the best baseball that I can. What I learned from the last draft is just don’t stress about it. Don’t pitch for the guys up there [in the stands] or the guys who are scouting, pitch for your teammates. Pitch to better them, better yourself, and give your team a chance to win.
“In high school, I felt like I was pitching for the guys in the stands, what they wanted to see, what they heard, and what I needed to do, and now I’m just going to do my thing and what works for me. I’m not worried about the draft; I’m worried about winning this ball game.”
Focusing on the here and now of each ball game, and playing for the team and ignoring everything outside of that, has been a point of emphasis for Pompey in his evolution as a player as well.
Going where there is no path and leaving a trail
The former Toronto Mets and Team Canada outfielder is also working on blazing his own path, as someone with big-league bloodlines, gaining knowledge from what he sees his brother Dalton – an outfielder with his hometown Blue Jays squad, who signed out of high school – do and experience in his career.
“I’ve learned from when he struggles,” Pompey said of his older sibling. “When my brother struggles, I see how he gets out of it, and the biggest part of it is the mental piece. He’s obviously not happy with the playing time, and he thinks he should get a shot, but he’s still positive about it and he tries to make the most out of it. The fact that he’s still playing and still giving it his all – everyone says he’s great but he doubts himself a little bit because of how he is – but the way he gets out of it is really good.”
Does the younger Pompey ever doubt his abilities?
“No, not the way he does,” Tristan said. “I’m much more mentally strong than he is. People call me cocky, and that’s who I am, I’m just that kind of person. I have that confidence. We’re different mentally, but our game is really similar because I’ve gotten faster, and I am starting to steal some more bases. I still can’t bunt like he can, but we’re definitely more similar now.”
Taking on the tough SEC
Sharing the same end goals, but taking two different routes to get there, Pompey is happy to be growing and learning with the Wildcats, and looking forward to doing much more of both things in the SEC this year.
“This is a lot different than high school,” he said. “You see a lot more off-speed [pitches]. On Team Canada, it was all fastballs, so you could get ready and you know what you’re seeing. But here you get a lot of changeups and a lot of curveballs. The SEC is probably one of the best conferences there is and I’ve gotten so much better here mentally as well as physically and baseball-wise, and you realize where you stand now compared to everyone else.”
Added Pop: “We’re in a tough league. Everybody’s going to say that. It’s the SEC, there are no easy games. Anybody can roll out a stud on the mound who can go nine innings or vice versa. It’s just a matter of taking your approach that you work on in practice, and the team philosophy that we have in practice, and bringing it to a game. If we can do that, we’re going to be alright.”